Making peace with the Madison

As we’ve done since 2009, part of the annual Firehole Ranger pilgrimage is a stop along the way back west to visit the fish of the Madison River near Three Dollar Bridge. Prior to arriving this year, if I had a dollar for every fish I’d caught on the Madison at Three Dollar Bridge, I’d have $4. That’s right: 5 years, 4 fish. Which means exactly what it looks like it means: The Madison is not kind to me. My best year was in 2011 when I managed to scratch out 2 fish. Marck is the only one who truly thrives on this river this time of year and quite frankly I feel a mutiny is in order. In two short years Morris seems to be have quickly found some love in the Madison, but he just does what Marck does, so Morris doesn’t count. We could drive a short distance south to Island Park, Idaho, and fish the salmonfly hatch on the the Henry’s Fork.  I’m pretty sure we’d all enjoy increased catching if we went just about anywhere other than the Madison.

Gearing up under the promise of a fair weather day.

At least this year, even if the fishing turned out to be poor, the weather was unseasonably good. Or, maybe it was seasonably good. We’re usually there as week earlier and the weather tends be rather hit-and-miss. The mountains had less snow than they normally do, which is not to suggest that the snowpack had been light: it hadn’t. But the melt came early and fast, as evidenced by the all the rivers in the vicinity and the Madison itself. It was running as high as we’d seen it before, and it was off-color. That being said, it had come down and cleared a bit in the 3 days since we’d driven past on our way to West Yellowstone. Despite unsavory appearances we knew there were fish in the river that needed to eat. Convincing them to take our offerings would be the challenge.

The Firehole Rangers at Three Dollar Bridge.

Despite my past issues with the Madison, I approached the day with a ‘can-do’ attitude: whatever had happened in the past was water under the bridge. With an outlook as sunny as the day, Jimmy and I headed upstream about 3/4 of a mile and began fishing down. Marck, Morris and Nash crossed the bridge and headed upriver on the opposite bank. Goose set up operations downstream a ways nearest the bridge. With the river flows being what they were, the fish would likely be tucked in tight to the bank, which meant fishing right in front of our toes—no casting, per se. Just flipping out some line, mending, mending, mending and watching the indicator for any subtle shift in position. And mending. Rigged with an indicator above a Turd (Pat’s Rubber Legs) with an MK Flies Hula Worm (it may have many unofficial names) dropper, I proceeded to work slots of water broken by large boulders.

The Delectable Worm/Aloha Worm/Hula Worm tied by Aileen Lane.

I’d done this many times before: watch the indicator for any subtle change in position, micro mend repeatedly and —BAM! Well, perhaps not quite a violent take, but I had a fish on: a 12-ish inch brown with very little fight in him due to the icy run-off, but a fish nonetheless. An early fish, too, as I’d only been fishing for 10 minutes.  Normally the early fish gets the worm, but this one took the Turd.  This gave cause for hope and enthusiasm.

First fish of the day.

As I angled on I noted that Jimmy had gotten into an early fish as well. I stepped methodically downstream, doing more of the same that had gotten me into the first fish. When I happened to take my eyes off my indicator to look around I could see Marck with a fish on (no surprise there). Morris, who was following close behind Marck like an abandoned puppy, also enjoyed a bent rod.  I had no idea where Nash was, but assumed he was into fish as well. While Goose finds the Madison equally as frustrating as I do, he always catches at least one fish and I was confident that he would do so. A sense of calm swept over me as I considered the very real likelihood that everyone would avoid a skunk on this day.

Across the river, Morris is into another of his ~20 fish.

Over and over I’ve tried to decipher the secret code needed to crack the Madison’s vault. We all fish it the same way, every year, and the results are that Marck always catches WAY more fish than anyone else. I usually catch the fewest. What advantage does Marck have that I, and the others, don’t?  Besides a much higher view of the water, and cologne that smells like Powerbait, nothing comes quickly to mind. What does he do that I don’t? I’d determined that he sets the hook EVERY time the indicator shifts position, whereas I have a tendency to dismiss subtle movements as shifting currents, and sticks. I decided on this day that I would consider every movement of the indicator to be a fish, and set the hook incessantly. The result was another fish shortly after the first fish. This one was a much more respectably-sized rainbow that had been lying in a seam a few feet off the bank, right where a trout should have been. It took the Hula Worm and gave a much better fight.

Second fish of the day on the Hula Worm.

Two fish! To what did I owe my good fortunes?! I’d equaled my best day on the Madison and had only been on the water for 30 minutes. As I proceeded to fish downstream, I did so with a certain confidence I’d never had before on this river. To say that I had a swagger would be a stretch—after years of demoralizing hardship, one does not develop a swagger so quickly. But things were going my way: not only was I catching fish, but I wasn’t losing flies on the countless snags! My confidence skyrocketed. On my next drift I hooked a fish that immediately ran toward the fast current and peeled line before snapping me off. I rationalized that it was OK to lose flies that way. Certainly that would have been the best fish of the day—perhaps the best fish ever caught by any of the Firehole Rangers on the Madison. I had plenty of Turds left in the fly box, and 4 more Hula Worms. I needn’t worry about running out of ammunition.

I did continue to catch fish, but nothing to write home about. On the Madison a 12 inch fish seems a bit like a Participant’s Ribbon, and while I was grateful to have caught 6 fish by the time I broke for lunch, only two fish (both rainbows) approached the 16 inch mark; the others were more diminutive browns that would have been right at home in the Firehole where 10-12 inchers are all the rage. During our lunch break Jimmy reported that he’d caught a few fish and Goose groused about having scratched out just a couple.  After lunch I crossed the bridge and headed upstream along the opposite bank. I ran into Marck, who was returning from a morning of slaying fish. He asked what I’d been using and I showed him the Hula Worms. He asked if I might spare him one. Of course I obliged—I still had 3 left.

As I began the task of trying to continue the good fortune of the morning, I rapidly began a downward spiral. The section I was fishing tends to fish better because it has more structure. It also tends to steal more flies because it has more structure. At one point I decided to step into the river to see about retrieving a snagged rig, and as I set foot into the water I spooked a good sized fish out of the hole and was unable to retrieve the flies. Salt in the wound. It wasn’t long before I’d lost the last of my Hula Worms. Any confidence I may have had quickly eroded like a clay bank being eaten away by a river’s raging torrent. My attitude plummeted as I seemed incapable of doing anything right. I did hook into a fish that quickly dispatched of me. This time I was unable to rationalize that loosing more flies—even this way—was acceptable. After that I cursed to anyone within earshot, reeled in my flyless leader and began to hike back to the parking lot. Along the way I stopped to watch an Osprey returning to its nest after an unsuccessful go at fishing. Misery loves company.

The Osprey returns…


As I walked the meandering mile back to where I knew a cooler of cold PBR awaited. The weather had heated to the point where ‘breathable waders’ proved to be an oxymoron. I was not only defeated, I was hot, sweaty and defeated. Trudging through the sagebrush I reflected on the day that had been so good in the morning, and so filled with despair in the afternoon. I’d caught more fish than ever before on the Madison, but I was also reminded of just how cruel she can be. I decided to take the moral high road and remember the good while forsaking the bad.

And next year I vote for the Henry’s Fork instead.

Opposing bannks: The Yin & the Yang of the Madison River.

This is part 2 of a 3 part series, sort of. You don’t have to read part one or part three if you don’t want to.


  1. Howard Levett

    Bravo Kirk…well done.

    • Kirk Werner

      Thanks, Howard. You should really fish the Madison some time, but only if you want to develop an inferiority complex.

  2. Goosemaster

    I hate the Madison!

    • Kirk Werner

      The Madison hates you, too. Hello Henry’s Fork!

  3. Aileen Lane

    I suppose this is a subtle reminder that you need more Hula Worms.

    • Kirk Werner

      Certainly not my intent. However… 😉

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